From Myanmar to Chicago — a teenage Rohingya Muslim refugee’s journey
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On a gray Saturday morning in the middle of winter, Salamat Khan Bin Jalil Khan sat behind the wheel of his beat-up 1995 Honda Civic and warmed up the sputtering engine for the 22-mile trip to work.
The 19-year-old refugee from Myanmar already had been up for hours to help his sister with chores, including an early-morning run to the laundromat.
Now, he faced a 10-hour shift at a fast-food restaurant in a strip mall in Schaumburg, grilling chicken and dousing it in a spicy Piri-Piri sauce. He could use the time to prepare for finals at Sullivan High School. But family and work obligations — and sheer exhaustion — got in the way.
He’d come more than 8,000 miles to Chicago from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, where he was part of that country’s embattled Rohingya Muslim community, an ethnic minority group who faced killing and rape at the hand of the military. He had seen neighbors’ homes burned down. He fled his homeland in a crammed truck — one of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who have fled the Asian nation.
Between ages 14 and 18, he missed nearly four years of school while his family lived as refugees in Malaysia. Even after arriving two years ago in Chicago — where an estimated 1,300 Rohingya refugees now live — Salamat missed months of school so he could work to help support his family, trying to complete an education that always seemed just out of reach.
“I have to start a new life in America, but I also have to support my parents,” Salamat says. “There’s just so much on my shoulders.”
He faces a situation common to older, male teenagers who come to this country.
“The older the student grows, the more pressure there is to work,” says Abdul Jabbar, a Rohingya refugee and caseworker at Chicago’s Pan-African Association resettlement agency.
Nationwide, graduation rates for students with limited English skills — seen as a proxy for immigrant and refugee students — are far lower than for native English speakers: 67 percent compared to the national average of 84 percent. Salamat’s story — defined by financial hardship, familial obligation and a lack of school support — offers a glimpse at why.
Grateful for the safety and opportunities of his new country, Salamat dreams of college and of one day bringing his parents to Chicago. But it often feels like those are competing goals. Support his family? Or go to school?
Only 13, fleeing a nation’s violence
Salamat was born in a small, farming village that the family knows as Aung Tine in Myanmar’s impoverished Rakhine State on the country’s west coast. His father’s family tended rice paddies there for generations. At 5, Salamat moved to Yangon, the country’s largest city, to live with an aunt and attend a higher-quality public school.
“My parents cannot read or write beautifully, but they know the value of education,” Salamat says.
In Yangon, he grew fluent in Burmese. Most older Rohingya Muslims speak only Rohingya, an oral language. On weekdays, “It was only about study, study, study,” Salamat says.
His visits home usually were nice breaks. But in the spring of 2012, the 13-year-old arrived to find his village transformed by fear. Longstanding disputes between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine had resurfaced, with an eruption of violence that included the torching of thousands of homes. In fear, parents wouldn’t let their children play outdoors.
That summer, the violence intensified. Buddhist mobs tossed flaming torches into houses. Salamat recalls joining in efforts to put out the fires and sprinting to warn his neighbors to stay home when village elders feared an attack. The military, which had taken control of parts of the region, was believed to support attacks on the Rohingya.
By July, Salamat’s parents decided their two sons must leave while they remained in Aung Tine.
The boys’ destination: neighboring Malaysia, where Salamat’s sister Gulshar had moved with her husband and two children, part of a mass exodus of Rohingya from Myanmar that summer totaling an estimated 125,000 people. Salamat remembers little about the 900-mile trek — just the mountains and stretches where they had to get out of the cramped truck and walk.
“I didn’t know what direction I was going. I just knew that I was going to my sister.”
In Malaysia, the brothers crowded in to their sister’s family’s small apartment. Malaysia isn’t a signatory to the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, which requires countries to allow refugee children to enroll in school. So, as an “illegal immigrant,” Salamat couldn’t register for school. He made a meager living doing electrical work.
At the end of 2015, Salamat’s brother-in-law got word the United States had agreed to admit his family as refugees. Then 17, Salamat qualified as a dependent.
In January 2016, they flew to Chicago, where, Salamat says, “I thought I would wake up every morning, get a cup of coffee, go to school.”
A new home, a difficult life
In Rogers Park, Salamat shared a dingy one-bedroom apartment with his sister, brother-in-law and their growing family, now three children. They lived off Devon Avenue, an area bustling with immigrant families, including other Rohingya.
His brother-in-law found work cleaning planes at O’Hare Airport. In February 2016, Salamat enrolled at Mather High School on the North Side, a school with has a large immigrant population.
On a test of his English proficiency, Salamat scored just 1.9 out of 6. That meant he’d start at Mather as a 17-year-old freshman, taking beginning English Learners classes.
He felt disoriented and not just about the language. In Myanmar, students stayed in the same room all day. Teachers came to them. At Mather, Salamat carried a floor plan of the building at all times but still kept getting lost. “I didn’t even know the bell-ring sound,” he says.After just six months, he dropped out. His brother-in-law was stretched thin supporting the Chicago household. And Salamat’s parents had moved to Yangon to escape the violence in Rakhine and needed help with the rent.
“I was, like, ‘I have to work. I have to earn money,’ ” says Salamat, who, nearing 18 at the time, had yet to complete his freshman year.
“Rohingya young men who are 17 or 18 often think of themselves as men, not teens who should be in school,” says Laura Toffenetti, assistant director of Chicago’s Rohingya Culture Center. “Planning for the future gets sidetracked by trying to survive the present.”
According to Abdul Jabbar, a Rohingya refugee who is a caseworker at Chicago’s Pan-African Association resettlement agency, and others, many Rohingya come from villages where formal schooling ends early. Often, American schools lack mentors for them. And male, older teens sometimes face peer pressure to start their own families.
Rohingya women typically don’t work outside the home, and young, male refugees, expecting to be the sole breadwinners, frequently scramble for work from the moment they land on American soil.
And this country’s resettlement program, which has been cut sharply under President Donald Trump, has prioritized refugee employment. The federal government spends at least four times as much on job training and support for refugees as it does on educational assistance, according to a 2015 report from the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Before the 1990s, the federal government provided up to three years of social welfare benefits specifically for the refugee population. Now, that’s capped at eight months. Refugees still receive onetime grants on arrival, which have increased in the past decade but still are just over $1,100 per person.
“There’s no financial safety net,” says Anne Saw, an assistant professor of psychology at DePaul University who studies Asian-American immigrant communities. “Often, the entirety of the single paycheck coming in the family goes toward rent.”
Salamat and his sister’s family received $5,500 after arriving in the U.S. They spent about half of that on a security deposit and two months’ rent, says Ephraim Assefa, a former caseworker with the Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago who helped the family get settled. It took Salamat’s brother-in-law more than three months to find even a low-paying job at the airport.
After dropping out, Salamat went to work full-time at O’Hare, a popular employment hub for Chicago’s Rohingya men. His commute, by bus and L, was two hours each way. At first, he worked late nights cleaning planes. “My body always felt down,” he says. Most of his co-workers didn’t speak English, giving him little opportunity to practice.
By last summer, Salamat had switched to a less physically taxing job in an airline lounge. But he worried that, unless he went back to school, waiting tables might be the best work he’d ever find.
His sister, like his parents, values education and understood his desire to finish high school. Gulshar says she worked hard for good grades even though, unlike her brothers, she wasn’t sent away to study.
“You can’t imagine how different education in Burma is,” she says, with Salamat translating. “My brother is like my son. I’m so happy that he’s going to school here.”
At 19, Salamat decided to go back to school. With help from a 77-year-old former volunteer at the Ethiopian Community Association, he found Sullivan High School, where about 40 percent of the students are English Learners. Several of his friends already were going to Sullivan. Salamat kept working weekends so he could keep sending money to his parents.
‘The Rohingya here need more role models’
One Monday morning, Salamat was first to arrive for his “Modern Band” class. He walked in to the amphitheater-shaped classroom, its walls decorated with vinyl records, grabbed a guitar from the instrument close and strummed and hummed as classmates trickled in. Learning to play guitar is one of the joys of his return to student life.
Salamat’s warmup ended abruptly when his music teacher, Katelyn Lawrence, announced the class would work in pairs to write musical compositions. Salamat raised his hand: “Can I be a soloist? Can I make my own song?”
“I’m sorry, I can’t make that exception, Sal,” she told him.
His resistance to team up isn’t unusual for older refugee students, says Sarah Quintenz, who heads Sullivan’s English Learners program. “The students who are mentally and physically older…the ones who know about being an adult — about being tired, about being broke, about paying bills — those are the students who tend to keep to themselves,” Quintenz says.
Sullivan has made strides to better serve immigrant students. But it lacks flexible scheduling and staff members who speak his language. School districts have struggled to recruit staff members from new or growing immigrant communities, including Myanmar and Bangladesh. Sullivan has about 30 students whose families speak primarily Burmese or Rohingya at home. (Another 13 students report speaking Malay, also common among Rohingya refugees.) The school has staff members who speak 12 languages, including Korean, Arabic and Hindi, but not Burmese, Rohingya or Malay.
Mather, where Salamat previously went, has more than 20 Burmese speakers. Last year, the school pushed hard to find a Burmese-speaking teacher, but Elena Indman, who chairs Mather’s program for English Learners, says, “We got nobody.”
Sharing a common language makes communicating with families easier and provides students with natural mentors. “The Rohingya here need more role models when it comes to education,” says DePaul’s Saw.
She says many older Rohingya parents didn’t finish primary school in Myanmar.
It’s not a coincidence Salamat has forged his closest relationship at Sullivan with Habeeba Fatima, his math teacher, an Indian immigrant. “Being an immigrant is a plus point for me,” Fatima says. “Students see that connection.”
Fatima knows more about Salamat’s life away from school than other teachers, that he worries about whether his parents receive the money he sends.
With no Rohingya or Burmese speaker on staff, Sullivan has created a “student ambassador program” in which student leaders from different immigrant communities help orient new refugees.
Last year, the Chicago Public Schools gave Sullivan $300,000 to hire four English Learners teachers and a social worker. “We know what a good support system looks like for these students,” says Matthew Fasana, an assistant principal. “But there’s always been a funding dilemma.”
A few schools across the country have experimented with longer hours for older immigrant teens, including Houston’s Liberty High School, where evening classes go until 10 p.m. “Many of our students who are new to the country…are responsible for themselves but also for families back home,” says Principal Monico Rivas.
Salamat’s best bet for flexible scheduling would be to enroll in a largely online program, but then he would forgo considerable teacher support. He says his grades have gone down in recent months, though he won‘t give specifics. It’s hard for him to imagine how he could be successful with less teacher assistance.
Salamat, who turns 20 in August, plans to start his junior year at Sullivan in the fall. He recently quit his fast-food job to focus on school.
Still, he feels he needs to make some money and has been scrambling to line up job possibilities closer to home.
He relies on his faith to help him push through long days. Salamat started attending the Islamic Oasis center soon after he arrived. Many late afternoons find him there. One day, he arrived, took off his shoes, washed his hands and face and quickly prayed. For the next couple of hours, he shuffled between small groups of boys, helping them fill out worksheets with questions about the solar system and algebra, his usually solemn demeanor fading for occasional giggles.
Salamat wants to be a role model for younger immigrants. So he knows he needs to focus on his education. He’s committed to graduating from high school by 2020 — when he will turn 22. He dreams of someday being a teacher. But his parents also tug deeply at his heart.
“My parents are very old,” he says. “I don’t want them to work again. I want them to be safe and support them as much as I can.”
When he is eligible for U.S. citizenship, Salamat hopes to bring them to Chicago.
He doesn’t dare count on any education beyond high school.
“If tomorrow I tell my parents, ‘I cannot send money, and I have to go to college,’ they will let me go,” Salamat says. “But, in my heart, I know they need help.
“Everyone has a dream to come to America. But I want to say it is not easy. It is not easy at all.”
This story was produced by the Teacher Project, an education reporting fellowship at Columbia Journalism School, as part of its continuing coverage of the intersection between education and immigration. You can read the first story in the series here.
One teenage refugee’s journey to Chicago
Salamat, 13, and his older brother flee growing violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Their parents stay behind. The brothers travel 900 miles by truck and on foot to join their sister’s family in Malaysia.
Salamat arrives in Malaysia’s Penang State, where he lives with his sister. He applies to the United Nations for refugee status.
Salamat works part-time jobs and doesn’t attend school. Malaysia isn’t a signatory to the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, which requires countries to let refugee children enroll in school.
The family learns that, if their application is approved, they will be sent to the United States as refugees.
Family members submit required documents, sit for interviews, get fingerprinted and undergo medical screenings and security checks. They give Chicago as a preference for relocation because the city already is home to hundreds of Rohingya refugees.
The family learns the United States will admit them. Salamat, then 17, qualifies as his sister’s dependent. Family members attend a three-day “cultural orientation” prior to departure.
The family arrives in Chicago after a 15-hour journey. A caseworker helps them find housing, food, furniture and other essentials with a resettlement grant of about $1,000 per family member. About half of the total goes toward a security deposit and rent for the first two months.
Salamat enrolls as a freshman at Mather High School on the North Side. His brother-in-law searches for work.
Salamat’s brother-in-law finds work cleaning planes at O’Hare Airport.
Salamat drops out of school to work at O’Hare and help support his parents in Myanmar.
Salamat re-enrolls, now attending Sullivan High School in Rogers Park. He continues to work weekends at the airport and also works part-time at a restaurant in a suburban strip mall.
Salamat quits his restaurant job to focus on school.
He completes his sophomore year at Sullivan and looks for a job closer to home.